Cultures, Primitive Societies

From Our Ancestral Tuareg Nomads: Traveling Towards Identity

“I think the driving force for cultural evolution is this desire for groups to be splitting off and separating and forming subgroups insofar as the environment will allow it. We see great cultural diversity and large numbers of cultures per unit area in regions of the world in which the environment is really rich.”

Mark Pagel

Traditional Social Structure of Tuareg Society

The legendary queen of the Tuareg culture, Tin Hinan, is believed to have lived between the 4th and 5th centuries. As a leader, she is credited with uniting many ancestral nomadic tribes into a single culture that still exists today. Anthropologists believe that her final resting place is at Abalessa, in what is now southern Algeria. The Tuareg culture once flourished in what is now Algeria, Libya, Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso.

Historically, family life in the Tuareg culture was nomadic. However, with the advent of the modern nation-state, nomadism is severely restricted, which has forced most of the Tuareg people to abandon their traditional herding and find jobs in towns and cities. Some aspects of family life in the culture has changed as the result of outside forces, but others remain the same as they have been for thousands of years.

Traditional Tuareg society was hierarchical, with nobility much like that of the United Kingdom. The foundation of family life in the community was large clans consisting of several family groups called tawshets each had a chief, or amghar. The amghar was chosen by the clan based on his matrilineal eligibility. The leaders of several clans often agreed to form a cooperative called a Kel, which means “those of”, and individuals identified themselves by the Kel to which they belonged. A leader of a kel, a majaghan was elected by the leaders of individual clans, and considered nobility, was responsible for organizing group defense during travel.

Family life in society differed according to class. Those in the noble class with servants to perform many of the time-consuming daily chores developed games for the children that would assist them in learning valuable skills they would need as adults. For example, ideblan was a role-playing game for girls in which they prepared to search for fruits and water. Other games taught them how to build tents and care for infants. There were even beauty contests for both boys and girls, with prizes for the best dressed.

Changes in Tuareg Family Life

Some social customs were observed in family life in Tuareg society regardless of class. For example a week after a baby’s birth, a naming ceremony is conducted. The evening before the ceremony, the baby is given a secret name by its older female relatives in their native language. On naming day, the baby’s head is shaved as a symbol of cutting ties to the spirit world. The baby is then taken to the mosque and given an Arabic name from the Koran by its father and an Islamic holy man. A celebration that includes a feast, camel races and dancing ends the naming ceremony. This double ritual is an illustration of the many ways in which the Tuareg people have managed to maintain their original customs and identities while adapting to the forces of the modern world.

Although various military occupations of their traditional nomadic lands resulted in many Tuareg people converting to Islam, women in their society are not required to wear veils. In fact, it is the men who wear veils. Young men of eighteen begin wearing the veil to signify their passage into manhood, and their readiness to marry. Marriage is also an important custom, and a wedding celebration can last for up to seven days. Even the camels and donkeys are decorated for wedding festivities, and older relatives build the bride a special tent. Traditional songs called Asak and poems called Tisiway are sung and recited by both men and women during celebrations.

Tuareg music has achieved global popularity with the band Tinariwen and the musical genre of takamba. Family life in Tuareg society was detailed in the popular novel of the same name, which sold over five million copies as well as being made into a movie in 1984. After traveling, much like the people whom it honors, an art exhibition titled “Art of Being Tuareg: Sahara Nomads in a Modern World“, is now at The Smithsonian Instutute.

A people accustomed to surviving without modern conveniences in the often harsh conditions of the dessert, the Tuareg people have proven to be extremely resilient. That strength and resilience, as well as the ability to adapt elements of other cultures to their own, has helped them preserve their culture. Considering the rate of change in the world, resilience is an excellent gift for parents to give their children.

tuareg family life
Touareg by Capture the Uncapturable, Flickr cc2.0
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